Advancing to a perfectly persuasive digital system

Every personal computer is now a tool of persuasion, but mostly not for our benefit.

Our mobile, laptop, and desktop computers with their cloud-dependent software have become the endpoints of a massive system of persuasion we call digital marketing. Ever more of our digital activity is tracked and modeled to later persuade us to spend our money, shift our thinking, and shape our future choices. We can do much better.

Persuasion used to be the domain of television, radio, and print but those mediums have been eclipsed by Internet-dependent computer which, with a recent focus on mobile devices, have vastly more persuasive potential.

Yet no matter how capable our computers become in persuading us to behave against our own self interest, the counterbalance is that each of us can use our computer to apply the same techniques toward our own interests instead.

Our best friend the smart-phone

It’s no secret that our mobile, laptop, and desktop computers have come to dominate our lives and attentions.

Did you know that most people spend more than half their time awake looking at screens of one kind or another? Yes, you probably knew that. There’s an old saying that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. That’s how Jim Rohn put it, anyway.

Nowadays, it’s no stretch to say that we spend more time with our personal computers than with any single person.

Slide 34 from Benedict Evan’s presentation, original source Ofcom

What kind of influence do our computers have on us? Between digital marketing, tracking-based advertising, the addictive Skinner boxes of modern games and communications, curated social media feeds, and search engine bubbles, it’s clear that they are being increasingly designed to maximize persuasive capability.

One of the key elements to persuasion is timing. When someone asks you do do something or makes a suggestion, if the timing wrong you’ll say no immediately. For example, if you just bought a bucket of ice cream, no amount of advertisements for ice cream will persuade you to go back to the store for a second bucket. But if it’s a hot day, and you’re near a grocery store, and it’s been a week since you finished off your last bucket, and you normally have ice cream in the freezer, it’s approaching a guarantee that you’ll say yes to the next suggestion, trigger, or cue to buy ice cream.

“Put hot triggers in the path of motivated people” — behavioral scientist BJ Fogg

Game developers know exactly when you’ll say yes to pay a dollar to bypass a boring, lengthy grind. After all, they programmed the grind into the game. Search engines extract your intent from your queries so they can serve related ads at the exact time you’re searching. Advertising networks track your online behavior in order to construct predictive models that tell them the best time to put specific messages in front of you.

Yet the effectiveness of those examples is constrained by both the quality of available information and the adversarial environment. These constraints are why recommendations between friends are much more persuasive: our friends know who we are and what’s going on in our lives. The difference between real friends and our friend the smart-phone is that our real friends care much more about our well-being than how or where we spend our money.

Perfectly persuasive

Let’s look at what I mean by perfectly persuasive. Right away it becomes a matter of perspective. Perfect for you or perfect for some other person? For you, of course. Perfect how, exactly? Perfect in the sense that it works — all key techniques are employed — and it’s a smooth, emotionally rewarding process. Perfect in that the benefits are all yours, if you choose.

Perfect persuasion puts you on the path toward success and pushes you until you get there.

By that standard, the persuasion of modern computers is far from perfect for the average person. The people behind digital marketing are benefiting from its persuasion, not you. Digital persuasion systems are fast approaching perfection for them.

In the digital realm, we tend to see a lot of invisible dirty tricks — dark patterns, back-room data-sharing deals, malware, invasions of privacy, and so on — exploiting psychological vulnerabilities to get results at your expense. And it’s the game publishers that benefit from promoting addictive and time-wasting behavior interspersed by unavoidable in-app purchases.

Every parent wants more for their children than to stare at a screen all day, yet here we are. We can do much better. Imagine if we applied the digital persuasion techniques and patterns designed take from people and instead used them to give to people. Is that even possible? Of course it is.

Success through self-persuasion

One of the keys to personal success is that we have to persuade ourselves to do what’s good for us. Anything we aspire to is by definition outside of our comfort zone and off the path of least resistance.

It’s clear that our environment strongly influences our behavior, but do we take the effort to create the right environment for ourselves? Do we take care to prune away the negative influences coming from our friends, acquaintances, or even our family? Do we understand our personality and our psychology well enough to consciously shape our lifestyle and refresh our tool-set?

All of those are elements of self-persuasion. Ignoring or neglecting them keeps us mired in the mud and pointed in the wrong direction.

Moving away from the path of least resistance — dropping old habits, establishing new patterns, building new relationships, learning new skills, engaging in new activities — is hard. It takes work. Often we need a push to make that initial effort. That push is also persuasion and most of the time we have to do it to ourselves. Sometimes others persuade us, sometimes we persuade others, but the most important persuasion is what we do for ourselves.

People who figure out how to aim the super-power of persuasion at themselves tend to find success.

All of those techniques used by game designers, advertisers, and social network providers? We can — and should — use them on ourselves to push us closer to our goals.

Everyone knows the right thing to do. Everyone knows how to persuade on some level, and several people — Robert Cialdini in particular — are published experts in persuasion. Everyone knows that persuasion works. But mostly we don’t do it.

Developing the ideal tool of persuasion

Despite all of our knowledge and technical ability, we don’t yet have a tool that ties our grasp of persuasion into a highly-effective personally-beneficial package. This package could easily be a personal computer that is always at our fingertips that employs well-known techniques to push us toward our own goals and aspirations one small step at a time. A perfectly persuasive personal computer, in other words.

That leaves us with a bit of bad news and a bit of good news. The bad news? Everyone wants a perfectly persuasive computer, but nobody knows what it looks like. It would be strange if you had a clear idea of how a perfectly persuasive computer might work.

The good news is that I’ve been working on this exact problem for a very long time. For a sneak preview of how a persuasive computer might look and work, take a look Benome. There’s much more depth to it than meets the eye. Sure, it’s a bit unusual, but so was the first horseless carriage. We call them cars now.